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Can Barnes take Texas to the top?

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As Iowa State standout Craig Brackins exited the Sprint Center following Big 12 Media Day, the future NBA draft pick passed Texas coach Rick Barnes near the arena's tunnel.

Placing his hand on Brackins' shoulder, Barnes nodded toward Cyclones coach Greg McDermott, who was standing nearby.

"He treating you OK?" Barnes said to Brackins. "If he's not you should transfer down to Texas. You'd love the weather – and we only practice once a week."

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Barnes has his best combination of talent and experience.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Brackins laughed.

"Sounds good to me," he said. "I'm coming."

Even though he was joking, the exchange offered a glimpse at why Barnes continues to lure some of the country's top talent to Austin. Whether it's a player or a parent, Barnes can put anyone at ease and make them feel comfortable.

That partially explains how Barnes was able to land two prospects (T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant) who went on to earn National Player of the Year honors and four standouts who would become consensus first-team All-Americans.

Another fast fact: Over the past seven years, Barnes has coached four top-10 NBA draft picks. Only Connecticut's Jim Calhoun can claim such a feat.

"Every year he's signing two or three of the best players out there," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It's pretty obvious that guys like playing for Rick."

That includes the players on this year's team, which will enter the 2009-10 campaign toting some of the highest expectations in program history. No school in the country is as strong in the three most important categories – talent, depth and experience – as the Longhorns, who are ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6 in various preseason polls.

Even with all of the top prospects he's brought to Austin, one question remains about Barnes. He's established himself as elite recruiter. But is he an elite coach?

His detractors would say, "not yet."

Instead of being praised for his .720 winning percentage in Austin, Barnes often receives criticism for his recent shortcomings in the NCAA tournament – or, more specifically, his failure to reach the Final Four the past six seasons despite possessing some of the nation's top talent.

In 2006, a team featuring LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson bowed out to LSU in the Elite Eight. The following season the Longhorns and Kevin Durant – the top player in school history – finished third in the Big 12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to USC.

D.J. Augustin led the Longhorns to the Elite Eight in 2008, but they got worked over by Memphis. Last season a veteran team featuring Damion James, A.J. Abrams and Dexter Pittman finished fourth in the conference before suffering a second-round loss to Duke.

All of it has kept Barnes – who went to the Final Four in 2003 and has averaged 24.5 wins during his Texas tenure – from being included with the likes of Self, Mike Krzyzewski, Ben Howland, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan and a handful of others who are generally regarded among the top coaches in the game.

A Final Four this year would change all of that.

And Texas certainly has the pieces to get there.

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Damion James passed on the NBA draft to return to lead the Longhorns.
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

James, Pittman and Gary Johnson will form a frontcourt that's as good as any in the country, but the biggest difference between this team and that one that struggled down the stretch last year is on the perimeter.

With only one real threat (A.J. Abrams) in the backcourt last season, Texas' opponents often camped out in paint and dared the Longhorns to shoot from the outside. Most times, the strategy worked.

The problem, though, seems to have been alleviated by four key additions: Florida transfer Jai Lucas and freshman J'Covan Brown will battle sophomore Varez Ward – the team's most improved player – for the starting point guard job.

Whoever wins will play alongside freshman combo guard Avery Bradley, a defensive standout who was rated as the fourth-best prospect in the Class of 2009 by Rivals.com. Bradley and small forward Jordan Hamilton – the No. 6 player on that list – give the Longhorns the length they've been lacking on the perimeter for the past two seasons. Hamilton, who is also expected to start, is a threat to score from anywhere on the court.

"If we play up to our potential," Barnes said, "we'll have a chance to beat anyone we play."

Indeed, the Longhorns are talented – but thanks to Barnes' recruiting prowess, that's always the case.

The difference in this year's team compared to the squads featuring the likes of Durant, Aldridge and Augustin is that this group has experience, too.

"I can't even remember the last time we had a senior class," Barnes said. "I mean, we've had seniors, but we've never had a senior class."

James, Pittman and combo guard Justin Mason – who has started 101 games over the past three seasons – were part of a 2006 recruiting class that also included Durant and Augustin, meaning all of them were freshmen when Texas lost to USC in the 2007 NCAAs .

Durant left for the NBA after that season and Augustin bolted the following year. The same path had been taken earlier in the decade by Aldridge and Gibson, who spent just one and two years in college, respectively.

"For the most part, our best players in March have always been freshmen and sophomores," Barnes said. "As good as they were, they'd never experienced something like [the NCAA tournament]. No matter how talented you are, it always helps to have been there.

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Jai Lucas transferred from Florida and could excel at point guard.
(AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

"With young guys, they're going to get burnt sometimes before they figure it out. That's what you hope your seniors eliminate for you. They can make them understand, 'You better be ready tonight'"

Barnes is hoping players such as Pittman, James and Mason do just that. James is the most talented of the bunch. A 6-foot-8 forward, he entered the NBA draft following his junior year but decided to return to school when he wasn't guaranteed he'd be a first-round selection.

"People told him the truth and he was man enough to accept it," Barnes said.

Pittman has NBA aspirations as well and, although he may have trouble hanging on to his starting job, Mason's experience and advice will be invaluable – especially to freshmen guards such as Bradley, Hamilton and Brown, all of whom have impressed Barnes with their attitude.

"All of the great players I've coached have been the same," Barnes said. "They realize that it's not about them – it's about everyone."

Barnes said Texas' playing rotation could include as many as 11 or 12. That may be what it takes to win a championship in what's expected to be a tough Big 12. Kansas will likely enter the season as the nation's No. 1 ranked team – but the Jayhawks must play Texas in Austin, where they haven't won since 2002.

"We've got 14 guys who think they're going to play every game," Barnes said. "They're competing with each other, but they're pulling for each other, too. Their chemistry is unbelievable. They know what they're playing for. They know how big this season could be."

Big for the Longhorns.

And for Barnes.

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